A geographical inspiration

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

Geographical inspiration – a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet by Bangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

And repeat… (Picture source: @BUGeography; @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

UK unplugged as EU leads the charge

The Coalition Government’s low-carbon vehicle policies are seemingly at odds with the EU’s strategy for a low carbon transport infrastructure.

Last year, an inquiry was held by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee into low carbon vehicles. A ‘call for evidence’ from interested parties was made by the Committee, and among those who submitted evidence was the Applied Research Centre for Sustainable Regeneration (aka SURGE), the research body at Coventry University at which I am based for my PhD. I even put in my own submission too.

The final report, entitled ‘Plug-in Vehicles, Plugged in Policy?’, was published in September 2012 and made suggestions as to how knowledge and uptake of plug-in and electric vehicles – or Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs) – could be fostered and improved, such as standardising chargepoints and suggesting a target number of plug-in vehicles in the road.

Earlier this week, the Coalition Government published its response to the select committee’s findings. Unfortunately – though perhaps unsurprisingly given the way that recent UK governments have been in thrall the free market to the detriment of everything else – the Coalition Government has decided not to do what it can to encourage a nascent low-carbon technology in which the UK could assert a lead (badum tish!), but instead to let the free hand of the market choose which of the various infrastructure and socket types employed by the various ‘Plug-in Places’ schemes up and down the country, claiming that

whilst we see there are advantages of a single recharging plug solution … our stance is that it is for the market and industry to decide what charging hardware and infrastructure will be”.

Are these different socket types compatible? What do you think? I’d be intrigued to know how many electric vehicles (EVs) regularly travel between these different locales with their various sockets and so decide which one is ‘best’. It’s as if the Coalition Government is quite happy to send the users of plug-in and electric vehicles back to the days before the National Grid was established.

Guilty as charged? The UK Government seems to have opted for business as usual - also known as chicken and egg - when it comes to plug-in vehicles. (Picture souce: authors photograph)

Guilty as charged? The UK Government seems to have opted for business as usual – also known as chicken and egg – when it comes to plug-in vehicles. (Picture souce: authors photograph)

The Coalition Government also believes that it is not its place to set targets for plug-in vehicles, again preferring to let the market decide, even though a target or ‘milestone’ would provide a marker for how successful (or otherwise) its policy has been.

That response was published two days ago. Today, the EU announced a ‘clean fuel strategy’, ranging from electricity to hydrogen to biofuels to natural gas, and setting targets for the number of electric vehicles and charging points by 2020. Included in the proposals was the announcement of the adoption of a common plug for electric vehicles – the ‘Type-2’ plug – so as to end “uncertainty in the market” as a means to foster “a critical mass of charging points so that companies will mass produce the cars at reasonable prices”. Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Action, said

We can finally stop the chicken and the egg discussion on whether infrastructure needs to be there before the large scale roll-out of electric vehicles. With our proposed binding targets for charging points using a common plug, electric vehicles are set to hit the road in Europe. This is climate mainstreaming in action. And a win for the climate, businesses, consumers and jobs“.

How very forward-looking and progressive. Now, compare and contrast those sentiments with the response of the UK government to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee report, and note how positive it sounds compared to almost craven market-led response of our ‘Coalition’ Government, which maintains in its response that it ‘remains committed’ to:

making the UK one of the premier markets for ULEVs, supporting the early market through the plug-in grants until at least 2015, and to continuing to work with partners in the automotive industry to remove barriers to adoption”.

Yeah, looks like it. With their decision to build the Leaf in Sunderland, perhaps Nissan are showing more of a commitment to ULEVs in the UK than the Coalition Government is!

Once again, Europe shows itself to be more environmentally progressive than the UK, with the Coalition Government’s response to the Transport Select Committee’s report seemingly contradicting the EU’s Clean Fuel Strategy. Compared to the EU strategy, the Coalition Government’s approach to fostering an adoption of ULEVs in the UK seems to underline just how backward it is in promoting a low carbon automobility – perhaps the EU’s Clean Fuel Strategy is something else upon which the Prime Minister thinks the EU has ‘gone too far’. And yet, when it comes to climate change and the environment, we are actually all in it together. Whatever happened to ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, Dave?

Lost in translation

Does the recent conviction of six Italian seismologists for manslaughter in connection with the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake suggest a breakdown in communication between the natural sciences and a lay population, and what does it mean for the communcation of climate science?

News that six Italian seismologists were recently found guilty of manslaughter following the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 has been met with widespread astonishment. The six were convicted because it was deemed that their statements regarding tremors prior to the earthquake were “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” and, because of this, the actions taken (or otherwise) by some residents of L’Aquila had resulted in tragic consequences.

A few of the people I’ve talked to about this have reacted by asking ‘where would that leave Michael Fish?’ following his (in)famous assurances prior to the Great Storm of 1987. With our tongues firmly in our cheeks, we can speculate what fate would have befallen any surviving oracles and soothsayers around Pompeii and Herculaneum who failed to predict the severity of what happened in AD79, or we could ponder if the six seismologists were only found guilty upon observing that they floated after having been ducked into a pond (or, to paraphrase the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we’ve found some seismologists – may we burn them?”).

On the face of it, the verdict would presuppose that predicting earthquakes is an exact science and suggest that the seismologists were negligent in their duties. It isn’t and they weren’t. Surely all that seismologists can do, and be expected to do, is to assess the data – the strength, depth, location and frequency of tremors – and present their best guess as to how, where and when an earthquake may strike. And that’s it.

That the six were convicted of failing to communicate the earthquake risk adequately, as opposed to failing to predict the earthquake itself, is of little consequence; that they were convicted at all is troubling. The judgement has brought comparisons with Galileo’s trial in 1633 for suggesting the heliocentric nature of the universe and, to me, the sentences do indeed have an almost medieval whiff about them, while also possessing a very 21st Century mix of litigiousness along with a consumer indignation borne of ignorance.

The L’Aquila ruling begs the question of what, in the light of the sentences meted out to the six seismologists, are the implications for climate scientists? Is the L’Aquila judgement symptomatic of a wider disconnect with nature and, if so, how can climate scientists disseminate their observations and perceived outcomes in a way that doesn’t alienate and bemuse the public or even lead to criminal prosecution?

In The Cambridge Companion to Goethe, Daniel Steuer describes Goethe’s own scientific epistemology as a ‘perspectivism’, whereby knowledge can be defined as the mediation of one’s own experiences and the tradition (or field/direction?) from which a researcher or scientist comes. From an autohabitus point of view, this could pertain to the way we regard and ‘consume’ the car – our ‘knowledges’ – based on mediating our own opinions and experiences with what information we receive from manufacturers or other ‘experts’. For example, I wonder how much currency the views of Clarkson, Hammond and May carry regarding the UK’s automotive psyche?

The climate system is an extremely complex one and, to muddy the communicative waters for scientists, climate change and/or global warming aren’t just scientific issues. Because of potential impacts upon food security, energy policy, mobility and global economics, they have also become political issues, and the way that climate change has been used for various political ends illustrates Goethe’s ‘perspectivism’. For example, international climate accords, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report of 2007, tend to be subject to sometimes intense political negotiations prior to ratification, despite what the scientists’ numbers and observations may say. Meanwhile, newspapers in the UK such as the Guardian and Independent try to reflect and report climate concerns, whereas others such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail seem unashamedly climate-sceptic. In both cases, the presented views and opinions seem to reflect their respective political left- and right-leanings.

The coalition government has also played its part in climate confusion. David Cameron’s cry of ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, exhorting ‘the greenest government ever’, seems to become ever more hollow with Owen Patterson, an apparent climate-sceptic, put in charge of DEFRA and, more recently, Peter Lilley, one of only 3 MPs to vote against the Climate Change Act of 2008, appointed as a member of the House of Commons Energy Select Committee. Only yesterday, (Liberal Democrat) DECC Secretary Ed Davey had to deny claims made by (Conservative) energy minister John Hayes of ‘enough is enough’ in declaring ‘an end to onshore windfarms’.

What are the public supposed to make of such a polarising issue that can also be communicated in ways that people may find conflicting and/or confusing? It never ceases to amaze me how often Daily Mail-types spontaneously adopt the mantle of palaeoclimatologist in declaring that climate change has happened before and, in their doing so, I wonder how much of this ‘knowledge’ comes from what they have been told, and by whom. That said, the ‘Daily Mail palaeoclimatolgists’ are indeed correct in asserting that climate change has occurred before – it has, but the climate record, for example data from ice and ocean cores, would suggest that it has never done so as quickly as is the case today. How would climate change from a global warming be manifest if it was purely natural and we discount our contribution? What were the effects in previous climate regime changes and how will our fragile societies and sensibilities experience these effects today?

The world’s weather has been somewhat chaotic in 2012 – droughts and heatwaves across the USA and Russia have affected grain harvests and will no doubt inflate global food prices; we’ve had a washout summer in the UK with several flooding events across the country; there has also been record ice loss in the Arctic; and, more recently, the collision and combination of a US mainland winter storm and Hurricane Sandy in the Atlantic ocean – christened ‘Frankenstorm’ by commentators – brought widespread flooding to the eastern seaboard of the USA, affecting large population centres like New York City. Is this what climate change and/or a global warming future looks like? Hardly the balmy conditions facilitating the growing of vines in Cumbria that some of the more, shall we say flippant, commentators have posited in the past.

Perspectivism is the key to how a public which may be uninformed, confused, sceptical or even uninterested understands climate science, all the while receiving conflicting opinion from various media. The climate debate and the verdicts on the six Italian seismologists suggest a disconnect between ourselves and nature, and there is a danger that the causes, effects and risks of climate change aren’t being communicated in terms that people fully understand – witness the Daily Mail palaeoclimatolgists and the Cumbrian vintners. If, as some have posited, climate change is the greatest challenge humanity faces today (and, despite my reverence for the car, I believe it is), then the L’Aquila ruling suggests that the issue of communicating the science and the impacts of climate change needs to be addressed, and as a matter of urgency. It could be criminal not to.